Playing Through

If hot-rodders can still remake battered old cars into things of brazen beauty, the rest of us can get to work remaking America into something equally bold and brave

Playing Through
Photo by John Anderson

First things first: The women who go to custom car shows are still major babes. For some of them, sure, the days when they might have appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine in a bikini have passed.

But that hasn't stopped them from putting on skintight jeans and skimpy T-shirts or applying a generous smear of glittery eye shadow. These women take pride in what they've got, which I find reassuring. I'm heartened, too, that there are still men in this world who revel in their cars. Their bad-boy drag-racing days may be behind them, but they still spend every spare hour loving their babies, turning them into beautiful works of baroque art, bolt by sandblasted bolt.

As I took in the Austin Custom Car & Hot Rod Show last Saturday at the Palmer Events Center, my attention was evenly divided between the buxom cars and buxom gals. Bob Olofson's wasn't. At 68, Olofson remains the hot-rodder he was at 13, when he bought a banged-up '46 Ford coupe for a couple hundred bucks and made it the envy of his friends. "Back then, all anyone could afford was a piece of junk," he said. "First thing you did was you got it running. Then you started making improvements. You added horsepower. You painted it yourself. You made it look real smooth, lowering the car, chopping the top, removing the chrome, the door handles, giving it something other than that stock look. The idea was: You wanted a fast car, but you also wanted something that looked good, something that drew attention. It was nice that the girls noticed, but mainly you wanted your buddies to appreciate your labor. These days, it's still a labor of love, but for a lot of people showing cars at events like this, it's someone else's labor they're showing off – labor they only paid for."

Olofson, a retired test pilot who lives in Georgetown and regularly wins best in show for his '48 Dodge Power Wagons, pointed to a DayGlo yellow '32 Ford Cabriolet Roadster on prominent display. "It's beautifully done," he admitted. "But you're looking at probably a quarter-million dollars right there, and it's too much. It's overkill."

Overkill? At a hot-rod show?

"I don't mind observing," Tom Wolfe once wrote of custom cars, "that it is this same combination – money plus slavish devotion to form – that accounts for Versailles or St. Mark's Square."

Wolfe was writing nearly a half-century ago, when America was living large. We weren't just buying absurdly large SUVs, flaunting a sham wealth. The "kandy-kolored tangerine-flake" midcentury hot rods were celebrations of a bold and vivacious culture. These days, with banks failing left and right, wages plummeting, unemployment soaring, and an auto industry that doesn't know its ass from its elbow, it sometimes seems we're as far from that can-do America as we are from the moon, where we once sent men just 'cause we could.

But if hot-rodders like Olofson can still remake battered old cars into things of brazen beauty, the rest of us can get to work remaking America into something equally bold and brave.

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Austin Custom Car & Hot Rod Show, Bob Olofson, Tom Wolfe, Palmer Events Center

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